Platoon is widely acclaimed as one of the best war films in cinema history, but how true to life is director Oliver Stone’s incendiary movie?
Platoon is widely acclaimed as one of the best war films in cinema history, but how true to life is Oliver Stone’s incendiary movie? Released in 1986, Platoon was a massive hit with audiences and critics, winning both Best Picture and Best Director at the Academy Awards. It was a well-earned victory, with critics still to this day naming director Oliver Stone’s intense drama as one of war cinema’s finest, and most realistic, couple of hours.
The famously outspoken Stone, who would go on to revisit the subject of Vietnam with the later hit Born on the Fourth of July, made the film from a place of personal experience. The director/writer served a tour of duty in Vietnam from 1967-8, and much like the later Jarhead relied on the same first-hand experience, this unique perspective of the horrors of war would go on to shape the action of Platoon.
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Despite its initial acclaim, however, Platoon has proven divisive in the years since its release, with some critics claiming the movie offers an inaccurate depiction of the Vietnam invasion. There’s no denying that Stone’s movie had an impressive claim to verisimilitude when compared to its competitors, as Platoon’s unsparingly brutal story is less psychedelic than the more surreal Apocalypse Now and less sugar-coated than pro-war propaganda like the jingoistic First Blood Part II or the embarrassing late-career John Wayne vehicle The Green Berets. But since it was this unflinchingly harsh look at the war’s dark reality that earned Platoon a lot of its considerable critical adoration in the first place, where – if anywhere – does the movie falter in terms of accuracy?
Platoon is Based On Oliver Stone’s Own Vietnam War Experiences
One thing that no commentator could fault is the genuine experience that Stone had in the theatre of war well before he became a writer and director. The director and staunch anti-war activist was only 21 years old when he enlisted for combat duty in Vietnam. The American invasion of the nation was entering its second decade when Stone served a tour of duty in the 25th Infantry Division from September 1967 to April 1968. He was later transferred to the 1st Cavalry Division and was injured twice in action, with the future director being awarded a slew of military honors for his service such as the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, and the Army Commendation Medal among others. Stone’s Platoon was promoted as the first Vietnam film made by a real-life veteran of the war, and more than lives up to that promise.
The Real 25th Infantry Division In The Vietnam War
Known often by their nickname “Tropic Lightning”, the 25th Infantry Division were instrumental in the 1968 Tet offensive, a maneuver so effective that at the time many commentators thought it would put an end to America’s occupation of Vietnam (in reality, fighting would continue for another 8 years). The division began their involvement in Vietnam 8 years after the initial invasion, with their 1963 contribution of 100 helicopter door-gunners ballooning until eventually, the 25th Infantry had 2,200 men joining the fighting by 1965. The infantry’s involvement mirrored a trend in many divisions of the time, as increased public opposition to the war (recently fictionalized in Netflix’s The Trial of the Chicago 7) and considerable victories by the Viet Cong against American forces led the US government to flood the small nation with further troops in the hopes of winning by force.
Was Drug Use Common Among U.S. Soldiers In Vietnam?
Drug use abounds in Platoon, where recreational narcotics are frequently utilized by the eponymous troop to numb themselves to the horrific conditions surrounding them and the amoral conduct of their colleagues. According to an Oklahoma State University professor (also a Vietnam veteran), Platoon’s depiction of rampant drinking and drug abuse by infantrymen on the front lines is inaccurate and a case of “Hollywood history”. However, it’s worth noting that the same professor also objected to Stone’s characterization of the US military as an incompetent, uncaring force in Vietnam and Platoon‘s depiction of unarmed civilians being murdered by American troops, both broadly agreed to have their basis in fact (and later seen in real-life footage featured in Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods). It looks likely that this particular professor simply objected to the reality of the Vietnam war’s drug problem, as the facts are very much in favor of Platoon.
According to a 1971 Department of Defence report, over half of the US troops stationed in Vietnam smoked marijuana, while a third used psychedelic drugs like magic mushrooms, acid, and mescaline. 28% of troops also used more serious drugs such as cocaine and heroin to cope with their conditions, leading Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Egil Krogh to famously inform Nixon “you don’t have a drug problem in Vietnam—Problems are things we can get right on and solve.”
U.S. Soldiers Killing Vietnamese Villagers During The War
One of Platoon’s most controversial elements was the depiction of US soldiers meting out wanton violence on native populations and often murdering innocent Vietnamese civilians. Of the primary cast Bunny and Barnes commit the most heinous war crimes during Platoon’s action, with Barnes killing a village chief’s wife and allowing his men to commit vicious gang rape, as well as murdering one of his colleagues. Where other Vietnam movies like Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket focused on the internal turmoil of US soldiers, Platoon unflinchingly depicted the human cost of the Vietnam invasion, and unfortunately, the depiction of these war crimes is accurate to reality. War crimes such as the Incident on Hill 192 (dramatized in the equally harrowing Casualties of War), the My Lai Massacre, the Shelling of Highway 1, the Phoenix Program, and many more all involved the torture, rape, and mass murder of unarmed Vietnamese civilians. These crimes were committed by US military operatives ranging in rank from infantrymen to high command.
How Accurate Platoon’s Battle Sequences Are
Platoon’s battle sequences were also praised for their believability. A former Marine and technical adviser to military movies, James Dever, claimed that Stone’s movie is unerringly accurate in its depictions of real-life Vietnam battle sequences. The adviser notes that not only are weapons and equipment carried correctly by the actors, but the tactics that the titular platoon utilizes are also believable for the time. Most importantly, the filth and grime worn by the characters during these sequences and their beleaguered demeanors make for a more believable platoon of Vietnam troops than most movies offer, with Dever praising Platoon’s stars and their commitment to realism by noting that “they’re sweaty, they’re dirty, the way they talk, the way the act…. You believe they’re out there in Vietnam.” While Platoon’s unvarnished depictions may not be flattering, they can’t be faulted for accuracy.
Platoon’s Biggest Changes From The Vietnam War
However, for all of the film’s critical acclaim, there are places where Platoon falls. The movie has been criticized for featuring only a small handful of black characters despite the fact, as Da 5 Bloods depicted, that the draft meant Vietnam’s young soldiers were more diverse than those of earlier wars. Critics have also noted that no black characters occupy high command in Platoon and that the few black characters present are depicted as cowards, an unflattering and unfair stereotype. That being said, the racial makeup of infantry units varied throughout the war, and the fact that Platoon’s trio of black characters is portrayed less than favorably does have to be considered alongside the fact that many of the movie’s white characters are equally, if not more, morally rotten or hopelessly broken by their experiences. Platoon portrays war as psychological and physical hell from which no one can escape unscathed, and in that regard, it stands alongside Full Metal Jacket and Jarhead in terms of accurately depicting the everyday reality of an inhuman atrocity.
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